Autonomous Delivery: Your Impulse Buys Will Still Be Safe

I heard a “Year in Review” program the other day on NPR with a BBC World Service panel discussion of what’s ahead for 2017. One prediction was that UAV delivery of packages would be commonplace this year, and as proof the commentator reported that Amazon had already had a successful test in the UK. But he expressed skepticism that it would ever be possible in the USA, where he said that “the first drone that goes over somebody’s property will be shot down and the goods will be taken.”

He seemed quite sincere about his comment, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he was only joking to make a point, not actually grotesquely ignorant about the limitations of firearms or being snarky about gun owners in the US. Either way, he brings up a good point: when autonomous parcel delivery is commonplace, who will make sure goods get to the intended recipient?

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Drones, Swarms At War

Using drones in areas of conflict is not something new. As commercial drones get easily affordable, we see it all the time in the news, some soldier using a Parrot drone to scout ahead, above trenches or around buildings. That’s a new reality that soldiers have to get used to. It changes the battlefield, especially traditional ground warfare. There is also research in drone swarms, performing tasks in team for some time now. Some of them are really impressive.

And then there’s the U.S. Military Perdix drones. William Roper of the Department of Defense illustrate what exactly their capabilities are:

Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals, they are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature. Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team.

Did we mention they can be released in mid-flight by a F/A 18 Super Hornet? That’s no piece of cake for any drone but Perdix is able to withstand speeds of Mach 0.6 and temperatures of -10 °C during release. In the latest tests conducted, three jets released a massive swarm of 103 Perdix drones, which after deployment communicated with each other and went on a simulated surveillance mission.

The Department of Defense announced the successful Micro-Drone demonstration and presented a video:

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Taking First Place at IMAV 2016 Drone Competition

The IMAV (International Micro Air Vehicle) conference and competition is a yearly flying robotics competition hosted by a different University every year. AKAMAV – a university student group at TU Braunschweig in Germany – have written up a fascinating and detailed account of what it was like to compete (and take first place) in 2016’s eleven-mission event hosted by the Beijing Institute of Technology.

AKAMAV’s debrief of IMAV 2016 is well-written and insightful. It covers not only the five outdoor and six indoor missions, but also details what it was like to prepare for and compete in such an intensive event. In their words, “If you share even a remote interest in flying robots and don’t mind the occasional spectacular crash, this place was Disney Land on steroids.”

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The World’s Lightest Brushless FPV Quadcopter

When a claim is made for something being the world’s lightest it is easy to scoff, after all that’s a bold assertion to make. It hasn’t stopped [fishpepper] though, who claims to have made the world’s lightest brushless FPV quadcopter. Weighing in at 32.4 grams (1.143 oz) it’s certainly pretty light.

The frame is a circular design cut from carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer, and on it are mounted four tiny brushless motors. In the center are the camera and battery on a 3D printed mount, as well as custom flight and speed controller boards. There are a series of posts detailing some of the design steps, and the result is certainly a capable aircraft for something so tiny. If you fancy experimenting with the design yourself, the files are available for download on the first page linked above.

There are two aspects to this build that make it interesting to us. First, the lightest in the world claim. We think someone will come along with something a bit lighter, and we can’t wait to see a lightest multirotor arms race. Good things come of technology races, which brings us to the second aspect. Governments are busy restricting the use of larger multirotors, to the extent that in some parts of the world all that will be available for non professionals will be sub-200g toy craft. Any project like this one which aims to push the boundaries of what is possible with smaller multirotors is thus extremely interesting, and we hope the community continue to innovate in this direction if only to make a mockery of any restrictions.

To get some idea of the sort of legislative measures we might be seeing, take a look at our coverage of a consultation in just one country.

Adding Drone Instrumentation With No Additional Parts

Soon the skies will be filled with drones, or so the conventional wisdom goes, and these flying droids will deliver pizza, mail, packages, and medical supplies right to one of the taller trees in our backyards. To date, advanced fixed-wing UAVs and toy quadcopters have proven themselves to be exceptionally dumb; they have no idea what their airspeed is, and no, ground speed measured by GPS will not keep you in the air.

The sensors to measure airspeed and angle of attack can be adapted to small drones, but [gallinazo] has a better idea: why not estimate these figures using sensors a drone already has? He’s measuring synthetic airspeed, something that would have already saved a few hundred lives if it were implemented passenger airliners.

Small drones are able to take a few measurements of their surroundings using standard accelerometers, magnetometers, and of course recording the position of the throttle and control surfaces. All of these variables are related to airspeed – at a constant throttle setting, with no movement of the control surfaces, an aircraft will eventually settle at a stable airspeed.

The trick, though, is to tie all of these variables together to produce a number related to the airspeed of the drone. This is done with a Python script implementing a radial basis function and eating all the memory on [gallinazo]’s desktop. This Python script is effectively a black box that turns the throttle position, bank angle, elevator position, and pitch rate into an airspeed.

Does this black box work? Judging by the graphs comparing synthetic airspeed to measured airspeed, this is amazing work. [gallinazo]’s airspeed estimator accurately and reliably matches the measured airspeed. It does this with zero extra parts on the airframe.

All of the code required to implement this synthetic airspeed indicator is available on GitHub, and could conceivably be implemented in a small RC plane after all the variables are pre-computed. Awesome work that pushes the state of the art forward quite a bit.

 

UK Government to Hold Drone Licensing Consultation

All over your TV and radio this morning if you live in the UK is the news that the British government is to hold a consultation over the licensing of multirotors, or drones as they are popularly known. It is being reported that users will have to sit a test to acquire a licence before they can operate any machine that weighs above 250 g, and there is the usual fog of sloppy reporting that surrounds any drone story.

This story concerns us on several fronts. First, because many within our community are multirotor enthusiasts and thus we recognise its importance to our readership. And then because it takes as its basis of fact a series of reported near misses with aircraft that look very serious if taken at face value, but whose reported facts simply don’t match the capabilities of real multirotors. We’ve covered this issue in the past with an incident-by-incident analysis, and raised the concern that incident investigators behave irresponsibly in saying “It must have been a drone!” on the basis of no provable evidence. Indeed the only proven British collision was found to have been with a plastic bag.

Of course irresponsible multirotor fliers who threaten public safety should be brought to book. Lock them up, throw away the key, whatever is appropriate. But before that can be done, any debate must be conducted on a level playing field. Our final concern is that this is an issue which is being framed almost entirely on the basis of one side’s interest groups and hysteria on the part of the uninformed about a new technology, rather than a balanced examination of the issues involved. It’s the old “People are having fun. This must be stopped!” idea that infects so much lawmaking, and it’s not very pretty.

Fortunately while it is being reported in some quarters as a done deal as in “Drone fliers must sit a test”, in fact this story is “The Government will ask people what they think about drone fliers sitting a test”. It’s a consultation, which means a Parliamentary committee will sit down and hear evidence before deciding on any legislation. The good news about consultations is that they are open to submissions from the general public, so if you are a British multirotor flier you can submit your own arguments. We will keep you posted with any news about the consultation as we have it.

Header image: 최광모 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

A DIY Net Gun To Catch Whatever You Want

Suspicious drones hovering about your property? Burglars or other ne’er-do-well test subjects giving you trouble? Need to catch a dog that keeps meandering through your workshop? [William Osman] suggests you build yourself a pneumatic net gun that can shoot 20-30 feet to catch them all.

The net gun is built largely out of PVC pipe; the air tank — filled via a tire valve — uses adapter fittings to shrink it down to a 1″ sprinkler valve, with an air gun to act as a trigger. The net launcher is made of four lengths of pipe bent with the use of a heat gun — an Occam’s Razor solution compared to his first attempt — and is coupled to the end, while the net loads in using wooden dowels with washers as weights. It won’t trap any large game, but it will certainly net you some fun.

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